The World Beyond by Sangeeta Bhargava is a beautifully told love story set in Lucknow in the 1850's.
It opens during the Ramzan fast, where the protagonist Salim, (an adopted son of the ruler) and his cousin Ahmed are looking at musical instruments in a shop in Chowk, one of the oldest markets of Lucknow. There they encounter a pair of eyes and hands (the figure being clad in a burqa) , which leave a lasting impression on the young Salim. They do encounter the lady again, and a common love for music, both Indian and Western, brings them together. This involves a large degree of secrecy and intrigue, as there is little or no interaction between Oudh's nobility and the British outside the official world of treaties and negotiations. The home lives of both Salim and Rachael are depicted with great charm, and the minor characters all ring true.
Do check out Sangeeta Bhargava's blog for excerpts.
Wajid Ali Shah has to leave his beautiful city and moves with most of his entourage to Kolkata. (The kingdom of Oudh was formerly protected by the British under treaty, and was finally annexed by them, and the Nawab was exiled to Kolkata). The iniquities of British rule are clearly spelled out. The destruction of a once beautiful city, the cruelty and violence perpetrated by both sides, the brutal attacks on the Residency in which many women and children were also killed, all are depicted vividly. Despite the widespread death and destruction, despair never rules, and in the saddest and hardest of times, the human spirit and love triumph. The book reads easily, with characters that are all too human, and descriptions that bring alive the splendour of the Lucknow of the nawabs. Daima, Chutki, Nayansukh, the ever hungry Ahmed, Begum Hazrat Mahal, the protagonists Salim, aka Chhote Nawab, and Rachael Bristow, the English colonel's daughter, are beautifully delineated.
History comes alive in these pages.
I think I particularly loved this book for its portrait of a city I have lived in and loved, much of which has been destroyed, yet whose past imbues its present with a flavour and a fragrance that is unique to Lucknow.
The blurb reads:
1855, Lucknow. As tensions simmer in the heat of colonial India, a prince of Avadh and an English woman defy their societies' prejudices to fall in love. But in a world where private happiness is at the mercy of wider events, even as Salim and Rachael are drawn closer together, their privileged lives are about to be torn apart. Trouble begins when the British annex Avadh and banish the king. Determined to recover what is rightfully his, Salim seizes the chance to fight back when a small mutiny flares into bloody rebellion against British rule. As unrest spreads across the subcontinent, the ancient city of Lucknow proves one of the most dangerous places to be. Torn between their loyalties to each other, their families and the opposing sides that threaten to raze the city to the ground, can Salim and Rachael's love prove strong enough to rise above the devastation surrounding them, and survive together to a world beyond?
The World Beyond is published in India by Rupa & Co., and is available on Flipkart.
Also published in England by Allison and Busby